Paddlecraft navigation

Jim Greenhalgh


Having a basic understanding of marine navigation allows paddlers to know where they are, where they are going and how to return safely.

Paddlers can learn the basics of marine navigation by taking America’s Boating Course. Then, they can boost their skills by taking America’s Boating Club seminars covering chart reading, GPS, tides and currents, marine compass use and the rules of the road.

Over the years, I’ve learned more than a few things about paddlecraft navigation pre-planning, GPS use and on-the-water navigation skills that might help my fellow paddlers.

Trip planning

Trip planning using navigation tools

Without the luxury of a well-fitted navigation station, paddlers would do well to perform trip planning and charting at home before departure. Once on the water, continued chart plotting becomes difficult; a small handheld GPS is the best way to obtain a position fix.

First, paddlers must decide where they would like to go. Then, they should locate a nearby launch and acquire charts of the area. Paddlers can find many guidebooks on the market as well as much information online, including charts for both coastal or river trips. Visit to find coastal charts for the entire U.S., including the Great Lakes. Find charts for popular rivers and lakes by searching the name online. When using older paper charts, get the latest magnetic variation at NCEI Geomagnetic Calculators.

Note: NOAA is in the process of canceling individual traditional paper and raster nautical charts as it transitions to vector electronic navigational charts, which will be complete in January 2025. Visit the Office of Coast Survey for more information and download the latest U.S. Chart No. 1, which displays the symbology used on ENCs. Look for future articles on this subject as this program is updated.

Waterproof charts are a must aboard paddlecraft. Paddlers can purchase waterproof charts or carry paper charts inside clear waterproof chart cases designed for use on small boats and paddlecraft. I produce my own waterproof charts using an inexpensive paper cutter and laminator available at most big box stores. On laminated charts, use a waterproof felt tip marker to plot course and other information. When the trip is complete, simply wipe it clean using rubbing alcohol on a paper towel. On laminated charts, measure distances using a marked piece of line, as regular navigational dividers can puncture the laminate.

Paper chart inside a waterproof chart case
Plotting courses on a DIY laminated chart using a permanent marker, which can be erased with rubbing alcohol

Paddlers planning coastal trips should always consult the tide and current tables using NOAA Tides and Currents. Find information about the latest conditions on specific rivers by searching various online river gauge sites. Don’t forget to factor weather forecasts into your trip plan. Find information at and other weather websites.

To perform time, distance and speed calculations during trip planning, paddlers need to know their vessel’s various speeds. A typical sea or touring kayak cruises around 3 knots and can reach a top speed of 5 to 6 knots for short periods exclusive of wind or current. Most sea kayakers use a speed of 2 knots for trip planning to account for wind, current and other factors. These speeds differ depending on the paddler and type of paddlecraft used. Paddlers should test their boats using GPS.


Navigating in fog with a handheld GPS and a foghorn

Many paddlers use GPS to navigate. You’ll find many handheld waterproof, floatable marine GPS units on the market. GPS units often come with coastal charts installed and the ability to add additional charts and inland maps. Some paddlers use them to track their progress on every trip while others use them as needed. They’re useful for navigating in restricted visibility and fog, nighttime paddling, locating specific points or navigating to destinations over the horizon.

I recommend removing the batteries from portable electronics when not in use. Older batteries can corrode and damage electronics. When reinstalling the batteries, make sure you have a watertight seal before use. I speak from costly experience on both counts. Many paddlers never learn waypoint navigation: using GPS to plan a course and direct them to their intended destination. Consider learning this useful skill by taking How to Use GPS online or from a local squadron or club.

Navigating on the water

Some touring kayaks come with deck-mounted compasses. If yours doesn’t, look for a portable compass that can be strapped to the deck of your paddlecraft. When packing gear in or on a paddlecraft, keep electronic or metallic objects as far from the compass as possible to avoid introducing deviation. All paddlers should learn how to use a compass and paddle a compass course.

Time, distance and speed calculations

When underway on a sea kayak, it’s easy to perform time, distance and speed calculations in your head. At a relaxed paddling pace, the average speed of a sea or touring kayak is around 3 knots. This means the kayaker will cover one nautical mile in about 20 minutes, one-half nautical mile in about 10 minutes and one-tenth of a nautical mile every two minutes. You need to factor the presence of wind and current into the actual cruising speed, but you can quickly figure out your estimated time en route.
Shorter and wider, recreational kayaks have a slower cruising speed, around 2 knots. Longer, slender racing vessels have faster cruising speeds. To determine an average cruising speed for navigation planning, check the cruising speed of your own paddlecraft using a GPS.

Ferry angle

When navigating to a specific destination on open water, boaters often encounter winds or currents that set them off course. Navigators learn to use vectors to determine a vessel’s actual heading to maintain course to the destination. Paddlers refer to this angular difference as the ferry angle, and a visual range is the easiest way to determine that vector. To demonstrate (see photo), I am paddling a course toward a range formed by a chimney located about a half mile behind a radar dome. A 10- to 12-knot crosswind is coming over the port (left) beam. To maintain course down the range and keep the objects in alignment, I must steer the boat about 20 degrees upwind. That is the ferry angle.

If I continually point the bow only at the chimney, the crosswind would push me off course, resulting in me paddling a longer circular course. Any stationary objects can be used to form a visual range, including trees, land features, structures or aids to navigation (navigational buoys and beacons located on the water). With GPS training, you can determine the ferry angle by creating a route on the GPS and correcting for course deviation displayed on the screen.

Demonstrating the ferry angle by paddling toward a natural range formed by a chimney and a radar dome


All paddlers should learn to use the aids to navigation system, or ATONS. By understanding ATONS, you can locate your position on a chart and anticipate other boat traffic to avoid collision. In the U.S., we use the red-right-returning rule: When returning from sea or proceeding upstream, keep the red aids on the right side and the green on the left to remain in the channel. Most of the time, paddlers can stay out of the channel to avoid boat traffic, unless shallow water forces them in the channel. Minor channels may be marked by only a few intermittent red or green aids, so it’s important that you apply the rule to know the channel’s location.

Unfortunately, powerboaters often must alter course to avoid collision with paddlers who don’t understand the U.S. aids to navigation system.

A group of paddlers holding outside the ICW channel as a larger vessel passes

Collision bearings

Illustration by Tristan Davis from “Navigation Rules for Paddlecraft”

Mariners use collision bearings to avoid colliding with other vessels. A helmsman at the boat’s pilot station can use a stanchion, rigging or other onboard object to line up a view of an approaching vessel. If the other vessel remains in the same position as it progresses, it’s on a collision course and corrective action is needed. Since paddlers usually have the smallest, lightest and least powerful vessels on the water, it’s critical for us to avoid collisions with other vessels, which could prove fatal.

On a paddlecraft, we don’t have objects at eye level to line up collision bearings, so I have learned to use clock positions (see illustration). In this example, you see another vessel closing with your boat that remains in your 2 o’clock position, regardless of speed or angle of closure. This means you are on a collision course with that vessel, so it’s best to take early action and change course to avoid a collision.

Get more training

While this article includes some tips and tricks that I have learned about navigating paddlecraft, all paddlers could benefit from more detailed training in basic marine navigation. United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, offers several classroom and online courses and seminars that teach chart reading, trip planning, rules of the road, and the use of both traditional and electronic navigation. With additional training, you will always know where you are and where you are going, ensuring you have fun and arrive home safely.

Jim Greenhalgh

Jim Greenhalgh of St. Petersburg Sail & Power Squadron/22 is a senior navigator, vessel examiner and instructor, having taught boating safety and navigation since 1991. He draws on his vast sail and powerboating experience as a lifelong boater and avid sea kayaker. Jim leads trips for the Kayak Adventure Group, a sea kayaking club based on Florida’s west coast that he co-founded. He also wrote Navigation Rules for Paddlecraft, a must-read for all paddlers.

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